Rights group asks Malaysia to drop protest charges

Human Rights Watch appealed to Malaysia on Wednesday to immediately drop charges against dozens of people arrested during a mass rally against a security law that allows for indefinite detention without trial.

Twenty-nine people, including a 16-year-old, were charged Monday with taking part in an illegal rally and other related offenses. Some face up to three years in jail.

Police had refused to give a permit for Saturday's rally, which an estimated 20,000 people attended anyway in downtown Kuala Lumpur. They protested against the Internal Security Act, saying the law had been abused to jail government critics without trial.

Police crushed the opposition-led protest with tear gas and chemical-laced water and arrested almost 600. All have been released, but it is not clear if anyone else will be charged.

New York-based Human Rights Watch in a statement admonished Prime Minister Najib Razak, who took office in April, for the crackdown. It said all charges should be dropped.

"Prime Minister Najib took office promising to uphold civil liberties, and then his government turns right around and brutally attacks peaceful demonstrators," the group's deputy Asia director Elaine Pearson said. "Security forces are violating the rights of Malaysians to free expression and peaceful assembly."

But the government has insisted that the rally, the biggest in almost two years, was unlawful, and action had to be taken. All gatherings of three or more people need a police permit in Malaysia.

Federal police chief Musa Hassan was quoted by Wednesday's newspapers as saying that parents of 44 minors who were arrested may face charges for letting their children participate. A police spokesman, who declined to be named citing protocol, confirmed the comments.

Police are also investigating 11 people, including opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and other top opposition politicians, for leading the rally. Musa said they could face charges for organizing it.

Human Rights Watch also called for a repeal of the Internal Security Act. The government has said it is reviewing the act but won't abolish it.

"If the government thinks Malaysians will quietly accede to a superficial review of the ISA, they should think again," Pearson said. "The thousands who came out to protest showed that Malaysians are prepared to stand up for their rights."

Activists say at least 17 people are still held under the act, mainly for alleged links to militants and document forgery. – Yahoo News